To Love, Honor, and Betray

The New York Times “Vows” section is usually the lightest part of the paper. The charming love stories, photos of beautiful gowns, and glimpses into happy celebrations never fail to lift the reader’s spirits. So it was with some surprise that I noticed one wedding announcement last month brought outrage in the comments section and sparked an online debate that raged well beyond the confines of the Times.

What could have so incensed the paper’s usually “open-minded” readership? It was a story titled, “What happens when love comes at the wrong time?” In the article, the couple details how they met and fell in love — while already married with children. They later divorced their respective spouses and married each other. A few excerpts from the article:

“I did a terrible thing as honorably as I could,” said Mr. Partilla, who moved out of his home, reluctantly leaving his three children . . . . The pain he had predicted pervaded both of their lives as they faced distraught children and devastated spouses . . . . “I will always feel terribly about the pain I caused my ex-husband,” said Ms. Riddell, 44.

Not your classic feel-good wedding announcement, to be sure. And the reader response wasn’t typical of the Times wedding section, either. There were the occasional congratulations — love has conquered all, isn’t that sweet — but those comments were few and far between. The overwhelming majority of readers wrote in to voice their outrage, disgust, and disappointment that the story had appeared at all, considering it shameless and boastful on the part of the newlyweds and in bad taste for the Times. The irony wasn’t lost on commenters that such a piece should appear in the “Vows” section, when the article dealt precisely with a couple not keeping their vows — the kind of story that threatens to make such a section irrelevant in the first place.

A small sample of the reader reaction:

“Why would these people share the details of this intimate story with the world . . . when the only sure effect would be to inflict yet more pain and embarrassment on their innocent ex-spouses and kids? Do people have no sense of discretion or grace or taste anymore?”

“It is shocking to me that these two would want to participate in the Vows column, considering the circumstances . . . . What kind of people flaunt stories like this, their children in tow? And what’s up with the Times publishing this, in general, but especially on the Sunday before Christmas, which is the hardest time of year for many parents of divorce.”

“There was a time when marriage was unto death. This immensely self-indulgent story reduces marriage to something like a lease-agreement that you feel compelled to have to buy your way out of when you see a car you like better. Have we lost the ability to experience shame? What must God think?”

 

What was going on here? It’s not unfair to say that the Times‘ audience is generally liberal, at least insofar as social issues are concerned. Defenders of traditional values they are not. So how did this group of progressive urbanites come to take up the banner of old-fashioned marriage? Are Times readers more conservative than I thought?

Sadly, the break-up of one marriage that leads to another is nothing new these days. But something about the Times‘ decision to celebrate this dissolution of vows struck a chord with readers who, though they may fully support the right to divorce, are sensitive to its harsh realities — to the broken families and heartbreak that it inevitably leaves in its wake. Few found much romance in a story of promises betrayed and children torn between parents. Celebrating selfishness was one step too far for Times readers — a gratifying reaction to an otherwise disheartening story.

So does secular society still maintain some “old-fashioned” values? Perhaps, but it’s more likely people are simply more forgiving in the abstract. Divorce and remarriage are easier to swallow as “love coming at the wrong time,” just as abortion is easy to embrace when it’s only “a clump of cells.” Once we take a hard look at the uncomfortable details, however, words like “shock” and “shame” and “outrage” return.

We may have accepted such evils as a permanent fixture of our cultural landscape, but there’s some small comfort in the fact that we’re still not ready to celebrate them. May the Holy Spirit continue to inspire a deeper respect for true love in all our hearts, opening us to the Divine author of Love who is the crown for us all.

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